Talking Comics with Tim | Rus Wooton

This week's interview with Rus Wooton in one sense is long overdue, given that the last time I interviewed a comics letterer at Robot 6 (Todd Klein) was more than two years ago. But in another sense, the timing is perfect, considering that Wooton recently (and amicably) left Chris Eliopoulos' Virtual Calligraphy (VC) lettering company in order to be free for his own creative projects--writing and drawing. One example of his new projects is his new webcomic project, Siblings, set to launch in July. My thanks to Nate Cosby for helping make this interview happen--and thanks to Wooton some insightful perspective on his craft. In addition to learning how he came to be a letterer in the first place, Wooton also was happy to discuss his ongoing lettering assignments for Robert Kirkman (among many other creators) as well as upcoming Cosby projects.

Tim O'Shea: You became a quadriplegic at the age of 20, were you already training to become a letterer prior to then, or did your pursuit of that career occur after then?

Rus Wooton: That's a great question that might need a long-winded answer, but I'll do my best to keep it brief. I'd never planned on being a letterer, but I'd always planned on working in comics in some way, at least since I was a kid in the late '70s. I had been drawing for as long as I could remember, and I was also into graphic design from a young age, influenced by my Dad who was an Art Director and Creative Director at an advertising agency. He actually designed the CNN logo while working at Sheehey-Dudgeon in Louisville in 1980, and he'd occasionally take me or my brothers to the office evenings and weekends when he was working overtime on a project.

I designed my first professional logo at age 14, for a local roofing company, and my Dad walked me through the steps of making a camera-ready mechanical drawing of it. This was in '84, long before designing on Macs with Adobe Illustrator or its precursors. In 1990 I was in college with a focus on drawing, working part-time weeknights washing FedEx trucks, and on weekend nights I worked at a weekly classified ad magazine doing ad design and paste-up. They had a total of two Macs then, so a lot was still done with typesetters and people like me laying it out on boards. So I guess the seeds of lettering comics, at least the design side of lettering, were planted long ago for me.

I broke my neck surfing in October 1990, and that put my planned art career in question. The paralysis left me a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the upper chest down, including my hands and parts of my arms. I regained sensation but not motor function, so I had to re-learn so many activities of daily living. I had to re-learn how to draw which was at first one of the most devastating aspects of my paralysis. My first attempts at drawing and writing while in rehab were horrendous, nothing but chicken scratch. I had this splint on my hand to hold a pencil or a pen and had to try to control these fine movements needed to write or draw with the large muscles that lifted my wrist back or moved my arm, much broader movements than I wanted.

I gave up for a while while in rehab, focusing instead on all the other stuff like learning how to get dressed or get in and out of my wheelchair, anything but drawing. After a few months, I finally asked my Dad to bring me one of my sketchbooks; he brought me a brand new one. I still remember sitting in the rec-room at Tampa General Rehab Center one evening, trying to sketch again with a ballpoint pen but trying to just loosen up and go with how my arm was working now. I drew this scribbly triceratops, but it looked decent, and it hit me that I was going to be able to draw again. It took a long time, but that one sketch was the catalyst.

After rehab I went back to school and got a degree in Fine Arts with a focus on Drawing and a degree in Art Education. I did some substitute teaching and was working with my writer friend Mark Thompson on a comic we were going to self-publish, then in '98 I took a job as web designer in New York at Wizard Entertainment. Remember Wizard Magazine? It wasn't until I got to know Chris Eliopoulos through my Wizard boss at the time, Buddy Scalera, that I considered lettering professionally. After leaving Wizard in '01, I was doing freelance design, mostly web stuff, and Chris asked if I'd help him with some grunt work setting up scripts for him to letter. He also started teaching me how to letter. In early '03, I'd moved back to the warmth of Florida, and Chris started his Virtual Calligraphy lettering studio with Cory Petit, Randy Gentile and me lettering for him, all Marvel stuff.

Phew! Sorry if that was too involved an answer!

O'Shea: What kind of equipment is essential for you to do your work?

Wooton: Adobe's Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign at the bare minimum for software. I letter on my iMac or my MacBook Pro, usually with a mouse and keyboard. I have a Wacom Cintiq monitor-tablet, and I use it for drawing and sometimes for design, but I'm faster when I letter when I use the mouse and keyboard. That may be because of my paralysis, because Chris Eliopoulos and the other Virtual Calligraphy guys use a Wacom for lettering, at least I know Chris does. With my hands paralyzed, I use the mouse completely sideways and I type with something wedged in between my fingers, currently a toothbrush with the brush head cut off, hitting the shift key with my left thumb. The only lettering I've done with pen and ink would be on some of my own stuff nobody's really seen.

O'Shea: Recently you left Chris Eliopoulos' Virtual Calligraphy (VC) lettering company, what prompted that departure?

Wooton: It was just time for me to completely go it alone as a letterer. Ever since I started lettering INVINCIBLE and THE WALKING DEAD for Robert Kirkman, with issues #13 and #19 respectively, I've gotten more and more lettering work outside of Virtual Calligraphy's Marvel stuff, and my regular VC Marvel books had dwindled to three monthly titles after THOR, THE MIGHTY AVENGER was unfortunately cancelled: FANTASTIC FOUR, Stephen King's THE STAND and DARK TOWER. I enjoyed those books, and I had something like a six-year run on FF, so it wasn't easy to break away from Eliopoulos and VC, but I felt it was something I needed to do in order to give myself more flexibility. I want to focus more time and energy on my own creative pursuits, writing and drawing, and going solo will help me do that. I may do Marvel work again at some point in the future, but the three VC titles I was lettering are now in the capable hands of VC's younger guys, Joe Sabino and Clayton Cowles. The last Virtual Calligraphy book by me you'll see in print will be the manga-style 15 LOVE mini series.

And so no one gets the wrong idea, there is no bad blood between Chris Eliopoulos and me at all. In fact, several of the current projects I'm lettering independently I got from Chris recommending me, including the webcomic THE GUTTERS and the upcoming books with former Marvel editor Nate Cosby at the helm: PIGS at Image (written by Nate and Ben McCool), Jim Henson's THE STORYTELLER at Archaia and THE IMMORTALS.

I'm proud to have Chris as a friend and lettering mentor; I owe him a lot. He's an example and inspiration for all cartoonists and creative people in general. His drive, work ethic and the sheer volume of work he does are admirable and humbling.

O'Shea: What books are you currently lettering?

Wooton: Well, of course there's INVINCIBLE and THE WALKING DEAD. Then there are other Image/Skybound books like SUPER DINOSAUR, THIEF OF THIEVES, THE INFINITE and GUARDING THE GLOBE. I just wrapped up the final issue of FEAR AGENT, and another Rick Remender book I lettered is now collected, THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME from Radical Comics. I'll be lettering a new LAST DAYS series soon, and I'm currently lettering the mini series EARP: SAINTS FOR SINNERS for Radical. Also at Image, I'm lettering Joe Casey's GØDLAND and the new hit BUTCHER BAKER; I'm lettering more Joe Casey books soon, too, which I'm very psyched about. Other current lettering projects include the upcoming books I mentioned earlier, PIGS and THE STORYTELLER. In Addition to Ryan Sohmer and the Blind Ferret gang's webcomic THE GUTTERS, I'm lettering Sohmer's MESSIAH book which I can't say anything else about just yet. I feel like I'm forgetting something.

O'Shea: Can you talk about certain font choices you make for some of the titles or characters you deal with?

Wooton: I try to use fonts and ballon styles that work with the art and tone of the story, so I've amassed a large collection of comic book fonts from both Comicraft and Blambot. I've created a few fonts of my own but have only used a couple sound-effect fonts in books I've lettered, notably in THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME and SUPER DINOSAUR. Virtual Calligraphy guys use Chris Eliopoulos's fonts pretty much exclusively, but you won't see me using those on anything other than the Marvel stuff I lettered as a VC guy. I'll sometimes take a font and adjust its kerning (the space between letters) or the leading (the space between lines), and sometimes I'll stretch or compress the letters to get just the look I think works with that book.

I like to get feedback from the artist and writer if I can, particularly on indy stuff when there isn't already a lettering style in place, because sometimes they have good ideas already before I come to the table, and ultimately I'm helping them tell their stories. So I want them to be cool with the way I do that. Guys like Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, Rick Remender, Joe Casey, Nate Cosby--these guys all know the value of good lettering and also know what looks good, what works and what doesn't, and it's great lettering books for them. Often they'll have a certain look in mind and I'll try to figure out how to make it work, and sometimes they'll surprise me and suggest a change that I hadn't thought of. That's where checking my artist/designer ego is important. Unless someone's doing their own comic from start to finish, it's a team effort and as a letterer I know my place in that team; telling stories well is more important than my lettering looking the way I want over the other creators' wishes.

O'Shea: Recently Kurt Busiek tweeted: "Note to letterers: When lettering in upper/lower case, the words at the beginning of sentences get capital letters. Geez." What do you think when you see your contemporaries having to make corrections like that?

Wooton: That sounds like it's either a rookie mistake he's seeing or a mistake born of work overload and ridiculous deadlines, which are quite common for letterers. We're the last people in the comic book assembly line, so often we're expected to letter a book yesterday to make up for lost time. Obviously, Kurt Busiek knows his stuff, and you look at any of his creator-owned work like ASTRO CITY, or one of my favorites SHOCK ROCKETS, and you can tell he's a man with an eye for quality. I think those were both lettered and designed by Richard Starkings and Comicraft, by the way.

Anyway, if Kurt's frustration is this mistake he's seeing before a book goes to press, it's a different thing than if it's something he's seeing after the book's printed. If a mistake like that gets to print then responsibility also lies with the Editors, because they shouldn't let that get by them. That doesn't absolve the letterer by any means; I'm sure I've made a few mistakes like that over the years, having lettered thousands of books, and I take full responsibility for those even if they made it to print. That said, I'm inclined to give letterers some benefit of the doubt because I know the pressure of lettering and putting together multiple books at once and having to make changes to dialogue literally minutes before the books go to the printer.

With upper/lower case lettering, the mistake Kurt tweeted about could happen when the script's dialogue and narration are written in all-caps and the letterer made everything lower case but forgot to capitalize the first word in the sentence. Honestly, I haven't seen that mistake much at all that I can remember, so I'm not sure. I can understand how it could happen, but that's not an excuse for it to happen constantly, and it seems that's where Kurt's frustration is coming in. It reminds me of when I started lettering; Marvel books were all upper/lower case, and I kept forgetting to make sure the upper case "I" was sans-serif except for the personal pronoun. I don't think any of those made it to print but I remember it drove Chris Eliopoulos nuts to to see it happen over and over. That's why I think "rookie mistake" when I read Kurt's tweet.

One rookie screw-up I made that got to print was a page in FANTASTIC FOUR a couple years ago, long after my rookie period. It wasn't a lettering mistake but a production mistake; somehow a page I'd made a last minute lettering correction on shifted when it was re-loaded in InDesign, and I was doing production on that book, not the Marvel Bullpen. Neither I nor the Editors caught it, and to this day it knots up my stomach when I think about it. Because yeah, I wish one of the Editors had caught it, but it was my fuck-up, and not even the crazy deadline's an excuse for me to not catch that before it went to press. It may sound dorky, but I feel like I really let FANTASTIC FOUR fans and readers down on that one; that mistake not only took them out of the story but took part of the story away from them--some of the lettering didn't make it on that page at all. Yikes. Live and learn!

So, that's my wordy way of saying I can understand Kurt's frustration, but I empathize with the letterers, too.

O'Shea: Of your contemporary peers, who do you think is doing some of the best lettering out there--and that in a sense challenges you to work harder?

Wooton: The big names like Eliopoulos, Starkings, Tom Orzechowski, Todd Klein and of course John Workman. I'm always looking to see anything they do that might change things up or add something to lettering I hadn't noticed before. And anybody who's familiar with my work will see a John Workman influence on certain books that I letter. Those guys all started out as traditional, pen & ink letterers, so I'm not sure what that says, but their experience is something to be respected for sure. I also like stuff like Patrick Brosseau’s HELLBOY lettering, and I like the lettering Kody Chamberlain did in his book SWEETS and the lettering by writer Jason Latour in the book he’s doing with artist Chris Brunner and colorist Rico Renzi, LOOSE ENDS. It’s always cool and inspiring to see an artist and/or writer who can letter, whether it’s digital or traditional lettering. I should also give props to artists who can letter sound effects into their art; Chris Samnee's sound effects in THOR, THE MIGHTY AVENGER, for example, fit his art better than anything I could have come up with.

O'Shea: What is the key to being perceived and respected as an established letterer? Also what does it take to establish an effective rapport with a creative team?

Wooton: An eye for art and design, good storytelling skills and the ability to work under tight deadlines and still produce quality work. As for establishing an effective rapport with a creative team, it takes understanding the story and its tone, being able to communicate well with the other creators and editors, and knowing your place in the team, the ability to keep one's creative ego in check. That's not to say a good letterer should just keep his or her mouth shut and take orders; a good letterer picks battles but asserts their expertise when necessary.

O'Shea: What's creatively on the horizon for you in 2011 and beyond?

Wooton: I'm focusing a lot these days on my own art and writing. I've been helping other creators tell their stories for eight years now, and I have my own stories to tell. I'm trying to draw and write daily, in addition to my lettering work. It's tough but rewarding, and I've been remiss in not nurturing those parts of myself enough. I'm hoping to finish a screenplay I'm writing, the story of which is a collaboration with my good friend Mike Fasolo (Emmy winning writer on "Robot Chicken"). Mike and I go way back to 1998 when I started at Wizard. I'm not sure if anything will come of that screenplay, as nothing's come of the first one I wrote, but just completing a second screenplay will be a good thing for me.

I'm launching a webcomic in July called SIBLINGS, a mix of old school newspaper style comics with stories that might not fly in newspaper strips. It's a strip I started over twenty years ago but put aside when I was paralyzed as I focused on college and getting my independence back. Another webcomic I'm working on is a back-and-forth teamup with my good friend Pat David. I'm not sure when that will launch, but hopefully this summer. Then I've got a couple creator-owned comic pitches I'm working on, so I have no time to sleep.

One thing that I'm looking forward to starting but dreading at the same time is a collaboration with my Dad. Dreading only because I don't want to fuck it up or for it to come across wrong. He wrote a 12-page book in a mix of poetry and prose twenty years ago and printed up a short run to give away; it was about my accident and the recovery process as seen through his eyes as my father. He did these cool spot illustrations on many pages, too. I was going to redesign the book for him and get more printed, but he recently suggested I illustrate it myself, maybe as a comic book. It'll be an interesting and beneficial process, I think. I just wish my Mom was still with us to see how it turns out.

O'Shea: What can you tell folks about your upcoming potential pursuits including Blacksmith Jones that may be illustrated by Mario Wytch, and a graphic novel called Homeland?

Wooton: I need to update my website! Mario is in fact illustrating BLACKSMITH JONES, and HOMELAND has been put on the back burner for now. As for BLACKSMITH JONES, we've got Rachelle Rosenberg on board coloring it, and she and Mario make a good team. I'm writing, but as we go along, I'm getting ideas and story input from Mario as well. We don't have a publisher yet, but we'll be pitching it soon, after some tweaks to the pitch itself.

I'd originally planned on illustrating the book myself, and I even had a preview book with some penciled and lettered pages at the inaugural Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo (C2E2) last year, but with my Mom getting sicker from her breast cancer around that same time, I ended up putting it aside all together, along with some other personal projects. I've known Mario since the late '90s and he contacted me about working on a book together. Of the ideas I had, he was most interested in BLACKSMITH JONES. Mario's been doing indy comics for years with Bluewater Productions, Viper Comics and Antacrtic Press. He's got a cool, unique style, and I hope our books goes places.

O'Shea: I was struck by two of your recent tweets in which you said "...I think any creator-owned work that diversifies the comics medium in its content helps us all. We can't survive on heroes...Nothing against superhero comis, of course. We just need more diversity to grow the audience & more ppl reading." Care to expand upon your thoughts there?

Wooton: I think that was in reference to a discussion about creator-owned comics. I think that in order for comics to survive, we've all got to encourage and promote diversity, not only in content but in readership. I grew up on superhero comics, love them and think there are still great superhero stories to be told. But I think the American comics landscape in particular is too superhero-centric, lacking in non-white characters and in female characters, particularly main protagonists.

We've got a bunch of guys in their 30s and 40s writing and drawing comics that fulfill their adolescent daydreams, and the daydreams of readers, most of whom are a bunch of other guys in their 30s and 40s, but how many current adolescents--boys or girls--share those daydreams? For that matter, how many kids under ten years-old are interested in the majority of superhero comics? I was reading comics as a kid in the '70s and early '80s, superhero stuff, Archie stuff, Richie Rich, Disney, Godzilla, all kinds of stuff. And there's a lot of stuff out there today, but the big two, Marvel and DC, are focused on superhero comics written mostly for this shrinking number of 30-and-40-something fanboys.

I get fired up seeing diverse subject matter coming from indy publishers like Image or Dark Horse or some of the smaller publishers. We need that diversity to get new readers, young and old, male and female. And we need a lot of all-ages comics that kids can read, that parents can not only feel good buying for their kids but reading to their kids, boys and girls. I'm encouraged to see Boom! and Ape publishing more all-ages books. I'm not sure how well they're selling, but I'm hoping there are a lot kids out there discovering comics and enjoying them, kids who'll grow up reading comics.

Diversity, accessibility and availability of comic books are the keys to comics surviving as a storytelling medium, in my opinion. Like rock 'n' roll, jazz, and apple pie, the comic book is an American invention we should be proud of. But comics have more respect in other parts of the world, along with more diversity in content and audience, and most of the top-selling American comics are superhero books from the big two that often just pander to the fanboys who are at their local comic shop every Wednesday to pick up their pull-list. We've got to shake things up. Even if you don't like a certain genre or format of comic, variety is needed so that you can read your new superhero comics for decades to come.

I don't mean to sound like I'm slagging all superhero comics. I still read and enjoy many, and INVINCIBLE would be at the top of my stack of comics even if I didn't letter it, along with superhero stuff by Rick Remender, Tony Moore, Jonathan Hickman, Stuart Immonen, Kurt Busiek, etcetera etcetera! I just want to see all kinds of comics being read by all kinds of people in all kinds of formats. Like Ryan Ottley tweeted today: "I'd like Comics to last forever please."

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